Press coverage of the coronavirus outbreak continues, with more than 23,000 people having been tested for the virus in the UK resulting in 278 confirmed cases and 3 deaths as at 08 March 2020. With multiple sources, including BBC news, reporting that in future up to one fifth of the UK’s workforce may be off sick due to the virus, what should employers do?
Effective communication is key in situations such as the coronavirus outbreak to ensure concern is reduced and that staff are aware of:
- The symptoms of the coronavirus – a cough, high temperature and shortness of breath
- Where to go and who to speak to if a member of staff believes they may have contracted the virus
- The circumstances in which staff should self-isolate
- What policies and procedures are applicable if staff do contract the virus or are required to self-isolate
- What workplace measures are being implemented to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus at work.
Staff can be signposted to NHS.UK/coronavirus in order to obtain information, advice and updates.
The public are being advised to use NHS 111’s coronavirus service, either online or via telephone on 111, and not
to attend a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital in the event of concerns regarding contraction of the virus.
There are a number of workplace measures, in addition to communication as above, that employers should consider in order to protect the health and safety of their workforce. Measures (which may be identified by carrying out a risk assessment) include:
- Ensuring contact details, including emergency contact details, are up to date for all staff
- Encouraging staff to wash their hands regularly and making sure that they are informed of good personal hygiene steps, such as coughing into a tissue or sleeve
- Ensuring that there are sufficient facilities available for staff to wash their hands with hot water and soap
- Making hand sanitiser and tissues available to staff and encouraging their use
- Ensuring staff are provided with facilities to dispose of used tissues safely
- Ensuring managers are able to identify symptoms of the coronavirus and are equipped to deal with any potential cases, including how to protect themselves
- Considering whether you are able to provide an isolation room to provide staff with a private space in the event they feel unwell or wish to obtain advice from NHS 111
- Ensuring the workplace, including any isolation room, is cleaned appropriately each day.
In order to minimise the spread of the coronavirus, the government has stated that eligible employees and workers should receive statutory sick pay (SSP) from the first day of their absence where they have the virus or where they are advised by NHS 111 or a doctor to self-isolate, rather than from day four as ordinarily would be the case.
While people who self-isolate may actually not be ‘sick’ at that point, legislation is likely to regard them as being ‘deemed to be incapacitated’ where they are advised by a medical professional to self-isolate due to the coronavirus, regardless of whether they have the virus or not.
Whether individuals are entitled to company sick pay in addition to SSP will depend on the terms of their employment contract. However, it has been suggested that it would be best practice where an individual’s contract would entitle them to company sick pay if they are unwell to also extend this to where they self-isolate.
This does not mean, however, that an employee or worker has to be paid sick pay if they simply do not wish to work due to the risk of contracting the virus. In such cases, the employer might possibly agree that the individual can work from home or use some of their holiday entitlement or take unpaid leave. However where an employee unreasonably refuses to attend work, the employer could take disciplinary action, although a fair disciplinary process should still be followed first.
What about where an employee has recently returned from a high-risk area, such as Italy, and wishes to return to work immediately, despite being advised to self-isolate?
In those circumstances, the employer can again consider whether the employee is able to work from home. If this is not appropriate, the employee could be placed on paid medical suspension. Such a measure is likely to be reasonable where the employee’s attendance at work has the potential to place the wider workforce at risk.
Time off for Dependants
Another situation you may face is where an employee, who is fit for work and has not been advised to self-isolate, is nonetheless unable to come to work because they need to care for a dependant. For example, an employee may have to care for their child who is poorly or where a school closure due to the coronavirus causes childcare problems.
While the employee has a right to time off in such circumstances, there is no legal right for the employee to be paid for the time they are absent. The employer might, however, have a policy in place providing a pay entitlement for such an absence.
Lay-Offs and Short-Time Working
Current reports are that it’s unlikely that workplaces will be forced to close as a result of the coronavirus, but employers should be aware of the consequences if they do have to take such a step and taking legal advice on their specific situation would certainly be a good idea.
If employers are looking at having to close the workplace, then they should consider whether they have the contractual right to use lay-off periods or short-time working.
Even if they do have such a right, it would still be best to consider other alternatives first, such as whether the workforce may be able to work from home.
In the absence of any contractual right enabling lay-offs or short-time working or an alternative method of providing work, employers who have to close would be required to provide employees with pay for however long the closure lasts.
Please note – the contents of this article are not intended to provide medical or legal advice. Please obtain medical advice and updates from NHS 111 on NHS.UK/coronavirus or by calling 111. If you require employment law or HR advice regarding the coronavirus, please contact our team on 01228 552222.